A superintendent called me earlier this week, asking if I’d be interested in presenting a governance training workshop for her school board. She explained that several board members were coming dangerously close to “micro-managing,” and she wanted them to understand the boundaries between “administrative” and “governing” work. The example she gave involved a discussion at the most recent board meeting about travel expenditures over the past six months, including how decisions were made about who would be taking what trips and what kinds of reports were required about travel.
I agreed that there did appear to be some micro-managing going on, but I cautioned her that preaching to board members about not breaching the “firewall” between governing and administrative work probably wouldn’t have much, if any impact. Quick fixes like training tend not to accomplish much. Anyway, I said, there isn’t a really solid line dividing the two kinds of work, and even if there were, board members don’t really take to being lectured about being good little boys and girls and coloring within the lines.
So what, she asked, should she do about the apparently growing problem? I suggested taking a close look at whether her board was being invited to micro-manage by two very common phenomena that I’ve encountered over and over again. One is poorly designed board “silo” committees that have more to do with administration than governing. Classic examples would be personnel, finance, buildings and grounds, and curriculum and instruction. None of these committees corresponds to a broad governing function such as strategic planning or performance monitoring. Rather, they are highly technical in nature, and involving board members in such committees essentially invites them to micro-manage.
Another common problem is the absence of well-designed processes for engaging board members in a meaningful fashion in shaping key governing decisions, such as adoption of the annual operating plan and budget. The absence of well-designed engagement processes results in a vacuum that board members – typically being high-achievers who want to make a difference – tend to fill, even if that involves getting into some nitty-gritty work.
Although this superintendent agrees that structural and procedural deficiencies are the culprits, she hasn’t yet decided how to go about tackling them. But at least she won’t be wasting money on a futile quick fix!